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New dimension for trade pub content

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Activeworlds.com Inc., a 3-year-old company that delivers 3-D content over the Internet, has created "virtual worlds" for several b-to-b companies and is now shooting to get into the b-to-b media space.

"We’re looking for partners in b-to-b media, which is a big target," said Rick Noll, CEO of Newburyport, Mass.-based Activeworlds. Noll said 3-D can enhance print products delivered via the Web.

"When you look at a magazine, it’s not just text and pictures," he said, pointing to myriad graphic elements found in most business publications. "We can take subjects that b-to-b magazines cover and illustrate them in a 3-D format. With a long article, 3-D can help educate readers on, say, the differences between two companies in the same market. It adds a little bit of oomph to editorial."

Gordon Hughes, president of American Business Media, said developing 3-D content is shaping up to be a major issue for his member companies. "Graphics are important, and trade publishers should be looking at them, but they can’t look at [3-D] technology as a toy, but as a tool to reach diverse demographics," he said. "They [publishers] are not going to throw money at it, but want proof that it’s additive to the product."

Activeworlds develops and licenses Web-related software products that enable users to:

• Create 3-D virtual environments to which any visitor can obtain access.

• License a world server to create their own limited-access worlds, either on Activeworlds’ or their own server.

• Enter, move within and interact with others in a computer-generated, 3-D virtual environment through the "avatar," or virtual representation of the user.

In the last few months Activeworlds has made a couple of moves designed to boost its market, including the introduction of a more

sophisticated version of its 3-D browser. It also entered into a deal with Juno Online Services Inc. to provide real-time 3-D chat rooms to Juno’s millions of subscribers. Activeworlds’ b-to-b clients include Boeing Co., Eastman Kodak Co. and Phillips Multimedia.

But the company’s desire to cultivate clients in b-to-b media with large print stables could be hampered by the slowing economy. Nonetheless, b-to-b companies continue to make significant investments in the events business and it’s here that Activeworlds has been able to make some inroads.

Last summer, for example, Red Herring used Activeworlds’ 3-D technology for "Herring on Hollywood," a Webcast sponsored by the new economy title. Activeworlds created a 3-D "back lot" on the Webcast that resembled a typical Hollywood locale with mock hangars, stage sets, mobile units and simulated actors.

Focus on entertainment

"We’re focusing on the markets with entertainment products," Noll said, adding that 3-D technology tends to dovetail "with publications that already have a little sizzle with their audience."

Billy Pidgeon, an analyst at Jupiter Media Metrix in New York, concurred with Noll’s comments that 3-D tends to skew to entertainment-related products. Although he said the technology could be used to "link to objects that might need a better representation or products that need demonstrating," he also stressed that the technology is currently a "dark horse" in terms of market viability. "Standards need to evolve, and right now [3-D] is very expensive," he said.

Although Activeworlds has bagged some big clients, it has miles to go with Wall Street. Its stock price has been hovering in the single-digit range for the past three months. Noll said the company was profitable in both the second and third quarters, with a slight drop-off in earnings in the fourth quarter.

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